“It is visible that it has been manipulated, that it has been passed from hand to hand. So we can imagine people sitting around the bonfire, watching the magic that the flames create, passing the statue and telling stories,” says Cook.
“What we do not know is whether it was a personification of the spirit world or a being imagined by someone creative, a vital force or a human transformed into a creature to connect them with those vital forces,” he clarifies.
It is a spacious rectangular cave about 5 meters high, 10 wide and 30 or 40 meters deep. As you get inside it, it naturally gets colder and colder.
And at the back of that space, there is another cave, smaller, which is where in 1939 they found the lion-man.
“It was a special site where highly symbolic activities related to the man-lion were held,” says Joachim Kind of Tubigen University, who continues to excavate the site.
“I think the little cave where they found it was like a sacred site, like a sanctuary.”
The cave has two spaces: one large, like a community room, and another, more intimate, small, in the background.
The people who passed the lion-man in that cave from hand to hand were modern human beings, much like us.
They – we – emerged from Africa and some 60,000 years ago apparently some of us left, reaching Asia, Europe, Australia and America.
People had been making tools and hunting animals for well over a million years, but these people were, in a crucial way, different.
“Imagination is central,” says Clive Gamble, an expert in early human development at the University of Southhampton in the UK.
“We can inhabit other worlds and what really distinguishes us and the man who sculpted the lion-man is that ability to go further from the here and now, than what is in front of us … to look into the future and the past. “.
“What sculptures like the lion-man show us is that 40,000 years ago things suddenly arose that can only exist in the human imagination.”
For Gamble, these imaginative advances are necessary in order to establish a vision of our place in the cosmos. They allow us to imagine that other people will continue to exist when we are no longer there, to develop the belief in the afterlife, to create symbols, ceremonies and rituals.
“Those faith systems are as important as controlling your food supply or defending yourself. They allowed people to relate across much larger social universes for the simple reason that they shared something: a belief.”
It is possible that they did not even share the language, but the symbolism that gave them a kind of kinship or affinity in a much wider area than ever before, he concludes.
We will never know what precisely the lion-man meant to those people who had minds like ours and who sacrificed 400 precious hours to create him.
However, it seems that we are facing something that, as far as we know, has always played a profoundly important role in human life, that is, the composition of stories and rituals that put us all in our place.
What Wetzel and Völzing, and later Hahn, did is what societies have always done: start from fragmentary evidence to build an image of the world.
It could be said that when a group agrees on how to put together the fragments of the cosmic puzzle, you have a community; one that endures, encompassing the living, the dead, and those yet to be born.
Whatever the story of the lion-man may have been, there is only one place where it could be told, the one where stories have always been told.
A space that humans have learned to summon at will for hundreds of thousands of years: that which is created during the time in which the community gathers beyond the daily tasks, in a cave with a bonfire in which it sits protected from what lurks outside.